Welcome to Part 1 of our ongoing weekly series on Caregiving – advice, support, and stories for those who dedicate their time to caring for friends, family, and strangers dealing with cancer. Parts 1 and 2 are written by Kelly Grosklags, a psychotherapist in private practice and Angel Foundation board member.

When someone in your life is diagnosed with cancer, it turns your comfortable world into one that can be unpredictable and ambiguous at best. Someone caring for the person who is ill, be it a relative, neighbor or friend, is seen as a caregiver. Caregivers are at greater risk for problems with psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual health if they are not routinely making self care a priority. Over time, they may have to deal with complications such as:

  •  symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • an increased likelihood of developing long-term medical problems, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis
  • higher levels of stress hormones
  • more days sick with an infectious disease
  • a weaker immune response to the influenza (flu) vaccine
  • slower wound healing
  • higher levels of obesity
  • an increased risk of mental decline, including problems with memory and paying attention

In my practice as a psychotherapist who primarily treats people with cancer and their families, I see caregivers manifest a multitude of symptoms when their care giving becomes too much of a strain. Included in these are: feeling overwhelmed, sleeping too much or too little, weight gain or loss, changes in appetite, frequent headaches, stomach aches, and other somatic (body) pains and discomforts. It can be a sign of caregiver burnout if you feel easily irritated, overwhelmed with everything, and excessively worried.

One of the things I often hear from the caregivers I treat, is that they sometimes feel “dismissed” by family, friends or healthcare workers. As well intentioned as many can be when they say “of course you’re stressed; look at what you are dealing with!”, these types of dismissive statements don’t allow for further investigation into the well-being of the caregiver. Unfortunately, I have seen many cases of significant depression and anxiety disorders in caregivers simply written off as “common stress.”

 When you are caring for someone who has a serious illness, their concerns demand much of your emotional and physical energy. But you have to be aware of and remain vigilant for destructive behaviors within yourself. Many caregivers do end up feeling overwhelmed by the stress and the challenges of their role, and yet don’t feel that they have the right to complain about it or to feel sorry for themselves. Instead, they’ll turn to drugs or alcohol, start having difficulty sleeping or eating, or withdraw from those they care about to keep from having to care so much and so often. If you feel this way, a visit to your physician is important. If you have feelings of hurting yourself or others, it’s especially important to call 911 or go to the local ER. All too often, we focus on what the person with the illness needs, while at the same time neglecting ourselves.

Assessing a caregivers overall health is as important as assessing the patients. The patient is only in good hands and able to be well cared for if the caregiver themselves is healthy. I have heard many patients say to me “This isn’t about me. I have nothing to complain about, since I don’t have cancer.” My response often is this: “Actually, this IS about you. You are the co-survivor. If you are not well and taking care of yourself, your loved one won’t be well or well taken care of either. I understand your gratitude for not having the cancer in your body, but the cancer is in your home, your life and your family. You are a part of your family’s struggle with cancer, and therefore this is about you too.”

Kelly Grosklags, MSW, LICSW, BCD

Psychotherapist in Private Practice

Board Member, Angel Foundation